Interview: Aysha Sharif

A conversation around the cultural and societal barriers Muslim women face, and their path so far in the outdoors

Feature type Interview

Read time 15 mins

Published May 19, 2022

Author Hannah Bailey

Hannah Bailey
Hannah Bailey Hannah is an award-winning photographer and journalist who works tirelessly to shine the spotlight on women in action sports. She shows the real faces, telling genuine stories of those involved in the niche culture to inspire others to get involved and society as a whole.

Aysha Sharif is one of the inspiring individuals part of The Wanderlust Women, a grassroots organisation and movement working to create a safe space for Muslim women to access the outdoors and adventure. The group, founded by Amira Patel, is on a mission to normalise Muslim women in the space, empowering thousands to throw on hiking boots, stomp the soil, and access the magic of the outdoors.

For over 10 years Hannah Bailey, has worked tirelessly to authentically represent and shine a spotlight on women in outdoors and action sports. Her mission as a photographer and journalist has been to challenge the media, and industry to support inspiring stories, events and women in the scene, to encourage more participation and representation. Her latest project, Wandering Workshops, is a grassroots community organisation that aims to make splitboarding accessible to more people, welcoming new perspectives into the snow space.

Hannah recently caught up with Aysha, to understand the cultural and societal barriers her community faces, and to gain her perspective on their path so far.

Time to think and breathe. ‘Whatever problem you’re taking up, you’re coming down with a solution. © Amira Patel

It is really exciting to have this chance to chat with you Aysha, to learn about your story and that of the Wanderlust Women. Can you tell me your outdoor story and how it came to be part of your life?

I’ve always loved the outdoors since I was little as my dad was outdoorsy. So we grew up with all these stories of him out in the mountains, trekking and solo camping. As a South Asian woman these activities and the outdoors weren’t accessible to us at that time. It wasn’t a landscape we were able to access because our mums weren’t doing it. It’s not that they didn’t want to, but they‘d come from a different country, they didn’t speak the language, and they were raising young families so they never had the opportunity to do anything else.

When we were little my dad would take us up Pendle Hill in Lancashire. For me, it felt like I belonged there. As I grew up and went to university, it just wasn’t the culture amongst my friends. Then I had a difficult marriage and now I have a difficult divorce. I started pushing myself a few years ago, because I just needed to get out. But there was no one in my circle who could help me access the outdoors. I know it sounds like a silly thing to say, ‘to access the outdoors’, when it’s just there, but it’s not that easy. You have to drive there, hike this new area, in which you don’t know who you will meet, and what sort of reception you will get. At the beginning I was apprehensive. I used to solo hike, and I remember I met this guy on Snowdon who was with his family, and I stopped where everyone else had to take a breath. He turned around to me and he asked ‘do you think you can make it?’ Was he asking because I was a woman, because I am brown, because I am covered? Which part of me makes you think that I’m not going to make it, but everyone else is? It became a competition and I beat him to the top.

Then, a woman with her older children on a family day out asked if I was there by myself. For me it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, but obviously you didn’t see many brown people up hills in the images used in media or marketing. There was hardly any representation even just 18 months ago. But we were there before!

So after solo hiking, how was it you came across Amira and the Wanderlust Women way?

Well, I moved up to the Lake District about 18 months ago and met Amira on her first retreat in June last year. We clicked, it was love at first sight and she lived with me for a while. When I moved here as a single mum with my three girls, my family kept asking when I was coming home. But here is where I feel I belong, where I feel safe. It’s the first place I’ve ever felt home. I think it is the same with Amira. She went out to the hills to seek solace, and grieve through her personal problems and she found peace there. The type of characters we are, myself, Amira and The Wanderlust women, we want to share that with everybody. 

I understand what you mean about finding peace in the hills, and wanting to share that. What has it been like to open that out to more women to gain the benefits of the outdoors and understanding of its magic powers?

Last year when I was on her retreat, there were so many divorcees and single mums on it. As a woman from South Asian culture, it is hard to go through that, for example you can feel isolated as a divorcee as there is just not that support network. As we were all going through these things, we found an anchor in faith and part of our spirituality is the connection to nature and God. So when you are out there, on the mountain and you see everything that is created, without your help, and realise that life has been sustained, how can you not be empowered to sustain your life.

I remember this one young woman on the retreat that first year who was a single mum with two small daughters. She started hiking but was finding it difficult to get childcare. People around her couldn’t understand why she needed to go hiking, they would say why not just go to the cinema or go shopping. But those activities don’t fill your heart with peace! She persevered and now she is doing solo hikes all over the place. That one woman was empowered after just that one weekend, and in the future her daughters will be empowered.

I think for me and Amira it’s that ripple effect. It’s not just about taking women on hikes – it’s about sharing it and making it as easy for people as possible to join us in the outdoors. We have all been through dark times and we knew how bad they were. So if we can help one or two get out of that, it’ll all be worth it.

Aysha stood with one of her fellow Wonderlust Women, founder Amira Patel. © Adam Raja

 

 

Was he asking because I’m a woman, because I’m brown, because I’m covered? Which part of me makes you think that I’m not going to make it?

I’m fascinated by what you’re saying about the spiritual and religious side of connecting to nature. It makes so much sense to me. Spending time outdoors goes one step further than everyday activities, it connects and grounds us all.

The stereotypical outdoorsman or alpinist has been represented for so long in this space, but I think this has often lead to it feeling stale – the same photos, from the same angle, of the same people. It made me think how it is such a special time for your community as you’re the drivers of it. Is there a feeling of excitement of being in this space and and what it stands for? 

Definitely. When Amira stayed with me here in the Lake District, I would put my girls to bed and nod off, then come downstairs at 1 in the morning and she would still be scribbling away. We would go through ideas for hours and hours, because for us it was a new world, because we were not able to be a part of it before.

Elements like wearing your clothes and praying, they were all barriers. The media is such a powerful tool that when you see an image, it becomes a norm, but if you haven’t seen anyone bowing down and praying on a mountain somewhere, it is going to look like the oddest thing you have ever seen. We’re so excited to be doing what we are doing, but we are so limited with time. I am a single parent. I have to balance things. I want to do Wanderlust Women, to look after my kids and I have work as well. If it was up to us, we would be doing it every day – we are so time blind!

As early people in this space, you are part of defining what it looks like for others to join it, which is an honor but a great responsibility. What fuels you, Amira and The Wanderlust Women in this space?

Life and pain teaches you so much. When you come through a series of dark tunnels, and get out the other side, you want to take everyone through it. Everyone who looks, thinks, and speaks like you, because you have known challenges and faced the barriers. We have been on the outside of this scene, and wanted to be a part of but we couldn’t because we couldn’t wear the clothes, or we didn’t have people to help guide us in.

I remember at the beginning, when I wanted to start hiking, just getting the boots was difficult. I didn’t know about sizing, or what type of socks to get, or gaiters or waterproofs. If you don’t have that dialogue or guidance from someone who is not going to ridicule you, you might not get started.

Three weeks ago we were in Scotland doing our winter skills, and we met a girl. She was full of anguish and pain, but she was pushing herself through it. It felt like therapy. The mountains, this environment and these activities can fuel you to push your way through things. For us it is therapy, but also sisterhood. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you are from, you see everyone blossoming on the hills together. It is not just hiking, it is not just swimming, it is about changing people’s lives!

I totally agree. The benefits you get from the outdoors and from being in these environments have been really magical for me personally, to face challenges in life. And I feel I want to encourage other people and give them the chance to feel this magic, to be provided with the therapeutic benefits. It seems like one of the Wanderlust missions is to provide that opportunity for your community to feel the benefit of the outdoors from the therapeutic and sisterhood point of view.

Like you said, it is magical. You have to experience it. I always say, when you go up a mountain, you go up one version of yourself, and you come down a completely different version. Whatever problem you are taking up, you’re coming down with a solution. How beautiful is that?! You don’t turn to drugs, you don’t turn to drink, or useless entertainment. You don’t drown in your current problem. I don’t think there is anyone who isn’t going through something. But the beauty of it is that it is so simple. Just go out, and whatever answer you need, you are going to find it within yourself. If we can guide people to that empowerment, society would be a better place.

The barriers your community faces, can you talk a little bit about what they are and what you have learned through The Wanderlust Women? I think it’s important for people to understand them, so we can all be part of helping to challenge or diminish them. 

We have three identities. We are British, whereby we know we can do anything we want to do – work hard, and you can achieve it. We are South Asian, where it doesn’t matter how hard you work, there are certain things you are just not going to do as a woman. Then Islamically, there are certain restrictions in terms of your dress, and the fact you have to offer your prayers, and retain that modesty. Modesty isn’t restriction, it is the protection of the self.

All those factors combine to create barriers and the biggest one, in my opinion, is our South Asian culture. It is not the Islamic identity that halts or subdues us. Some of the greatest people and the founders of the religion were women – there is a lot of power and strength in them. In South Asian culture, you will get men who look like you, from the same family and community, who on the mountain think what we are doing is great, but when they are at home they won’t offer the same facility to their mothers, sisters or daughters. There is no plausible reason we can’t do what they are doing, it’s just the culture.

I did a swimsuit shoot the other day, and I told my mum, and she got really upset about it. Swimming is something I have only recently taken up after years of wanting to do it and not being able to. So if it helps other people to get the chance to do it, then why not? I was covered head-to-toe, so Islamically I was fulfilling my obligations. I think it was just a culture shock for her. It was the norm for women to not be seen and not be heard, and all of a sudden we are on mountains wearing boots and stomping in the rain. For some people patriarchal society doesn’t allow them to fathom this. It is important to note, we are not only battling people who don’t look like us, we are battling people who look like us too.

That may be a revelation to the community, to realise that you are challenged by those in your own.

Amira does interviews and documentaries, and she’s had a lot of backlash, mostly from men. They often say she should be at home, doing the cooking and cleaning. Also, we have done some live events where people have asked us why we are not married. But nothing in our religion says what we’re doing is wrong. The original muslim women used to climb mountains, even if it wasn’t discussed. For us, it is balancing the three elements of our identity. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it wrong. But we are open about our struggles because we are not the only ones struggling.

It is so interesting. The impact of what you are doing is not just for the mainstream, the white community, to see what you are doing. It is important but it is also to normalise it around your own community and invite more people in. It is as valuable to change the perspective and understanding of the older generation and men. 

That is one of the things. We regularly sit down to renew our intentions and our values around why we are doing all this. Our faith is very important to us, and we don’t want to do anything that will go against it. But if you don’t speak up, things don’t change. You can subdue oppression, you can subdue abuse, but eventually they will all come up. I always think I have to speak up, for whatever issue is at the forefront of our minds now, because tomorrow my daughters will find it a bit easier to deal with. I sit down with them and say you can do anything you want with life, nothing will stop you. My older daughter wants to be a farmer, so I asked her if I should get us a farm, to which she replied, ‘no I want to be the first female farmer in our family!’ They are all determined to make it up Everest and that is our common goal. We need to start training…

I know in the wider community, what we are doing is just a small drop, but imagine if all girls were empowered and believed they could really do something, and then you teach them good values. How is it that those girls will not contribute good to society? Once you have expanded someone’s mind and opened the world to them, then surely they look to do good. For us, that is what it’s all about.

People say it’s just hiking but it’s not. It is so much deeper. It goes down into your soul. © Amira Patel

Yes that’s proven. Empower a community, and give them access, and they will be more likely to protect the land, both doing good environmentally and socially. It might only be a drop in the ocean, but that little drop makes a ripple, and has its impact. I believe grassroots organisations are making the most impact in our industry, to create change, and invite more people in. I wondered where you thought the impact was being made or led by?

We have had a lot of women and individual supporters covering all the elements we do. There is Harriet, who helps run our navigation courses, or Ester who does the rock climbing. They have been running courses from the early retreats, and you can already see the impact it is having on their lives, our lives and the lives of participants. They are really behind the movement!

Ester will get a 60-year-old Asian woman rock climbing, when just a few years ago she would have just had to sit at home, and now she is on the rocks in the Lakes. It is all these individual women, and smaller groups that push us all along, as we are all pushing for the same thing. Ultimately, I believe in the sisterhood. The most fundamental part of our religion is that we believe when God created Adam the first human, he created him from soils of different areas and all different colours. So we are all one, we are all created from the same soil and earth.

Wow, I love the understanding of the different soil making the first human. It makes me think about how when we walk a hill we are walking the same mountain, the same soil. I think about that here in the Cairngorms when I’m hiking, I am walking the same path or patch of soil that Nan Shepherd or Queen Victoria have. Two, well three, ladies from very different backgrounds. As humans we would never have mixed, but we are sharing the same soil and path. I am fascinated by that.

It is so beautiful. It’s about belonging and strength. People say it is just hiking, but it is not. It is so much deeper. It goes down into your soul. How could you not pass that feeling on?! Especially in today’s world where there is connection and there is disconnection, there is feeling but there is no feeling. But when you see a group of women, sitting together, meditating, absorbing nature out in the hills, that experience will have rippled deep inside them.

It’s not just hiking, it’s not just swimming, it’s about changing lives!

Aysha and Amira bagging their first winter Munro in 2021. © Adam Raja

Belonging and connection are so powerful, and it is why I am so in love with the outdoors and the community also. But I think we have a long way still to go in our industry, well actually the world, to open the door to allow more people to belong. To not feel afraid to let people be part of it, and bring change or newness. I know things have progressed in the past year, I can see it thanks to organisations and people like you. But do you see a change in the industry’s representation of minority communities, and what could the industry do to support it further at this point?

With the work that Amira and The Wanderlust Women are doing, you can see the media are picking it up, there is representation. And more importantly, there is discussion and dialogue. Part of our understanding is that you can approach Asian men, but they have already been exposed to it, it is open access to them. The real struggle is with the Asian muslim females because they are not only pushing against their own barriers, but culture barriers, societal barriers and then facing the world out there, where they look different, they are covered and all the connotations associated. Bridging of cultures is where the dialogue starts. It opens us up to ask what are our similarities, because we know what our differences are. Then how do we build on them, and create these cohesive environments where people learn and become better versions of themselves. We can only do that through dialogue and getting to know each other.

So, is that what the industry can do behind the scenes, whether that’s brands, media or the community itself? To open up dialogue, speak to the individuals and listen?

Absolutely! If the object is people doing these activities, but there are still barriers to entry. For example, brands are making products that are not suitable for everyone. It’s not only Muslim women who are asking for long-sleeved tops, it was the same thing with the burkini and Nigella Lawson. She is not muslim, but she wanted to wear a full coverage. There is demand there, it is just how much the industry wants to tap into it. Amira is helping design the windproof and waterproof hijab, and that is massive. The fact that a big brand is taking on board that there is a community that has a different need and answer it.

Aysha, this has been so enlightening and inspiring. Do you have any final thoughts for us to take away?

We are just learning ourselves. Every day and every opportunity is a new one. Right now we are working on our mountaineering courses to make ourselves more confident, and qualified to be the leaders in our community, and so people can come to us. Amira and I are confident and independent women, but not all are like that, I think for us that is important to note. We want to create a safe space for those women, to empower them to find their voice.

While the outdoors industry is certainly seeing steps towards creating a more inclusive and diverse community, there is still a way to go. For a directory of organisations and individuals working to increase diversity in the UK outdoors, check out All The Elements.

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